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In Defence of Rose Chasm (Michaela Cross)

A white woman from the University of Chicago recently published an account of her unfortunate encounters in India. She was sexually harassed and assaulted on several occasions. The story received widespread attention, and Rose Chasm had many sympathizers, but as all cases of sexual assault stories go, she also had to face severe negative backlash.

One might say that is to be expected, seeing as how sexual assault victims haven’t exactly had the kindest audience. However, what was surprising about the Rose Chasm case was that she faced severe backlash from women, who know perfectly well what it’s like to be at the receiving end of such abuse.

Let me start with this article written by Polly Hwang which says “People who generalize are evil”, thereby making… a generalization. In her article, she says:

Not to chastise Rose Chasm in anyway but she should not have been dancing in the Ganesha street festival known for its hordes of extremely drunk young men. She should not have stayed in cheap shady hostels in Goa which I’m sure had no positive online reviews. She should not be flipping fingers at locals and most importantly, she should have left after her first incident of sexual harassment, instead of staying for over 90 days and developing PTSD. I’m not victim shaming in any way, the pigs who tormented Rose Chasm take 100% of the blame. However as foreigners, it’s our responsibility to be aware of how to behave and live in the local culture.

That’s a whole bunch of “She should not have…” statements followed by a cautionary “I’m not victim shaming.” Did the definition of victim shaming change while I slept in a cryogenic chamber for about one thousand years? I don’t understand how telling someone what they shouldn’t have done, and including a clause about leaving a place after experiencing one instance of sexual assault so as to not “develop PTSD” is not textbook victim blaming. I live in India, I’m a victim of sexual assault and I’m quite sure I wouldn’t appreciate this “advice”. It is patronising, misleading, and misogynistic. There is nothing victims can do to “prevent” sexual assault. If Rose had stayed in a not-shady hotel instead of a “shady” one, there would be no telling if she would be safe. Out of the 244,270 reported sexual assault cases in 2012 in India, 98% pointed to trusted friends, family or acquaintances as the perpetrators of the crime. That’s a staggering statistic. So, what should Rose have done? Should she have never visited India? On one hand, Polly’s article makes the case against generalizing Indian men, and says:

By implying that every man she met in India is a pervert and by not giving any examples of good decent Indian men, she is indirectly stereotyping Indian men in a very harmful way.

And then she implies that Rose should not have stuck around. Great, then we could all gang up on her again and say she generalised from one bad experience and decided to not stay. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Should she have been clairvoyant and known she’d get PTSD? Also, why should anyone suffering from that wretched trauma-inducing medical nightmare have to go out of her way to make commendable statements about Indian men? It makes no sense. If I were suffering from PTSD, while writing about my experiences and battling my trigger-prone brain and depression, the last thing on my mind would be appending a statutory line about the goodness of the hearts of the scores of Indian men who really are nice people. It is not Rose’s responsibility to include a clause so as to not save all the men in my country from coming under bad light.

Polly wasn’t the only one. Here’s another such seemingly empathetic post from another woman called Dilshad Master. Dilshad says:

Getting out alone, on foot, would be equivalent to…well let’s say, you and your friends dancing at the Ganesh Chathurthi festival on the streets of Pune. What in the world were you thinking? Oh, hang on, you weren’t thinking.

Life pro-tip:  To express your sympathy/empathy for someone who was tortured in your home country, do not adopt a sarcastic tone that is condescending towards the victim.

She then goes on to say:

I’m not quite sure which “lovely hotel in Goa” you stayed in. Did anyone recommend it to you on Trip Advisor or perhaps your friends on Facebook? Did you actually go through the comments on either or did you click on reservation, letting price and availability be your only guide? You see, we wouldn’t do that In India, not anywhere in the world. And if we did (like I did in Chicago), then we’d do it fully aware of the consequences.

More condescension and perfect 20/20 hindsight introspection for a sexual assault victim. This poster really is asking if Rose took enough precautions, implying that if she didn’t, she should have and that it would have made her life easier.

Then there was another article published on the same iReport section of CNN as a response to Rose Chasm, written by “twoseat”. In it, she says:

I want to address the consequences that arise from writing that lends itself to careless generalizations. The problem that this article has is that it ends up blaming an entire population for the actions of some.

The problem that ^that article has is that the article it references, does not, in fact, blame an entire population for the actions of some. Rose Chasm never insinuated or stressed that Indian men are all horrible, raging beasts. She only recounted her painful experiences and yet, twoseat thinks it is Rose’s responsibility to “articulate both sides”.

And then there have been those countless posts that are quick to point out that sexual assault also happens in the USA. Just read the comments section on any of the aforementioned articles. How is it okay for people to think Rose Chasm was playing the blame game here? She did not intend to demonise India, so why are people asking her to reflect upon the problems within her own country? Does the fact that there’s sexual assault in the USA negate Indian problems? Does it make people feel any better to say, “Hey, we’re not the only ones who rape and plunder!”? I can’t think of any other reason than derailment.

Although all these articles were written in good faith, they are perfect examples of how good faith can pave the road to hell. A sexual assault victim should not have to listen to multivarious accounts of what she should or should not have done. She shouldn’t have to listen to “advice” masked as apologia. She shouldn’t have to be told that she wasn’t prepared “enough”. She shouldn’t have to be coerced into acknowledging all the kindness and beauty in the world when she is trying to recuperate from acute trauma.

In a lot of ways, articles from these women are reminiscent of some statements made by Indian “leaders” that essentially place the onus of safety onto victims. Statements that dissect every action of the victim in hindsight and provide no comfort except obligatory platitudes.

Candle-light marches, prayers, and aggression don’t mean anything if we aren’t willing to admit that India has a problem (which is also prevalent in the rest of the world, no doubt, but that’s hardly the point) which can only be solved by a conscious, collective effort not make the women more liable in “preventing” something that really isn’t in their control. This is a nation where one rape is reported every 20 minutes, and that’s not counting the unreported cases, and other forms of sexual assault.

Considering the fact that science has actually associated demure behaviour to be what most sexual assault perpetrators look for in a victim, we should question whether we’re putting women at significant risk by advocating modest clothing and submissive behaviour. We should acknowledge that by contributing to an already enormous narrative of teaching women to not “get raped” rather than teaching men (and in some cases, women) to not rape, we’re tip-toeing on a dangerously thin rope. We’re promoting rape culture that makes rapists feel at home, while making the victims feel guilty. We’re completely neglecting a victim’s state of mind while we chide her choices without understanding the “neurobiology of sexual assault” (here’s a transcript of that video) and how “secondary victimization” can further a person’s trauma.

We owe it to our sisters to educate ourselves about a persistent, ugly social evil and really empathize with their struggles.

TL;DR: Do not blame the victim. Be brilliant like these men in Bangalore who wore skirts in solidarity for women, thereby making a bold statement about clothing (or anything else) never being an “invitation” for sexual assault.

Comments

  1. Kavana Ramaswamy says

    Indeed! I was particularly pissed off by one blog post that said she put herself at risk by not “smiling” enough – effectively denying herself the chance to interact with nice Indian men. Personally, I don’t know any Indian woman who is comfortable enough to smile at men on the street, forget actively entertain conversation. If you are, good for you. So now we have victim blaming on both ends – “you didn’t do enough to avoid the attention” and “you didn’t do enough to prevent antagonism”. Great going, world.

  2. says

    Does the fact that there’s sexual assault in the USA negate Indian problems?

    To make the nasty circle complete, people here in Canada and the US tell us we can’t talk about our problems with rape, because they have it so much worse in India, you know.

    So they get away with it here because they get away with it there where they get away with it because they get away with it here.

    If you can follow that logic, I think the Nobel Committee has a Peace Prize for you.

  3. Pen says

    It’s more than a bit weird that non-Indian women are pronouncing on what female tourists should or shouldn’t do to be safe in India. And that their advice tends to reflect what’s considered sensibly safe behaviour for women in the US. I’d like to assume it’s because they’ve spent time there, but… my own experience of relatively minor sexual assault in India suggested such different things from these.

    1. I was where I didn’t intend to be through no fault of my own. It was the all-pile-in carriage at the end of a train at 3 o’clock in the morning. The train was very late, the conductor slept through our station and didn’t open the door to 2nd class AC. So I should expect to be assaulted now, fellow Westerners? Oh wait, perhaps I shouldn’t be taking the train? I should drive, because nothing could possibly happen then? OK, never mind that for a minute. Let’s see what else happened.

    2. The guy desisted immediately when he noticed I was a mother. My daughter was squashed up with my friend and it took him a while to see her. Mothers are different and don’t get groped. Right. He then immediately asked where my husband was. Wives are different as well, because they already belong to someone else? But why isn’t he on hand to defend his property?

    What’s the advice now? Don’t go to India without your husband and child? Or perhaps your father or brother if you’re too young to have these. Older, single and childless? Hmm…. it’s true that traditionally in India I think women haven’t wandered around on their own too much. That presents a problem for Rose Chasm and for millions of modern Indian women as well.

    And I second Kavana @1 but from the other perspective. ‘Nice’ Indian men typically leave single foreign women alone, barring a clear need or request for assistance or information. If that happens, they help and move on. Which is genuinely nice of them, no argument about that.

    What did my assaulter do next?

    3. He asked me how I was liking India with a look of hopeful pride on his face. Seriously? OK. So it seems he really had no clue of the extent to which he was giving me an unpleasant experience right at that moment. He thought that based on our relationship so far, this would be a fine time to cadge a compliment on his country! That’s a very interesting state of mind, and faced with that situation, I don’t know what a female tourist can possibly be expected to do.

    PS I was more fortunate than Rose in that I didn’t suffer any psychological ill health as a result of this experience and I don’t mind saying that I like India a lot in all sorts of ways. Just so long as the news doesn’t get back to that particular fellow train passenger.

  4. jestinfinite says

    @Swati This was forwarded to me this morning and I agree with it so strongly, I feel as though I could’ve written it myself. Like you, I have no patience for misogynists or rape apologists, whether they are be male or female.

    @Kavana Ramaswamy – I actually saw more than one criticism of Michaela Cross for smiled and laughed *too much* in public.

  5. says

    @CaitieCat, I’m definitely stealing this – “So they get away with it here because they get away with it there where they get away with it because they get away with it here”. Sums it up very nicely.

  6. Ashwin says

    Swati,

    This was an excellent post. Thank you.

    It disgusts me that in the original article, many Indians have taken to attacking Rose Chasm for “generalizing” or whatever instead of validating her experience.

  7. Kavana Ramaswamy says

    @Pen: slightly confused about what you meant by “other perspective” – I was merely commenting that the victim blaming went both ways – that the woman is nor conservative enough AND that she might not have been open enough. I’m totally amused at how the phrase “nice Indian men” has to be in quotes these days, but I guess many of the gropers / rapists do very honestly believe themselves to be “nice people”.

    and @CaitieCat: Excellent summing up. It’s really frustrating how people don’t take it seriously when someone attacks sexist bullshit without realising that their dismissal condones (and probably leads to) sexual assault.

  8. says

    With my pleasure, Sunil, glad to make any small contribution. I really am so glad you added nirmukta to FTB, it’s been really educational, and so many of your group are such good writers.

  9. Swati says

    @Pen: I am terribly sorry to hear about your experiences, and I hope you’re in a better place right now.

    @CaitieCat: Thank you for reading, and for your comments.

    @All: Thanks for stopping by, I was sort of expecting a negative backlash myself, because I wasn’t sure if I was justified in my rage. Thanks for the validation.

  10. Linda Gn says

    As I woman, I am interested to know about your opinion. I think men are not much interested in respecting women. But in a survey conducted in UK (Title: Women say some rape victims should take blame – survey), almost three fourth of the women there, with such a super majority, said women have to take some responsibility for what happens to them. These are modern women, from 2010 talking. Any opinions?

  11. S Mukherjee says

    There is no end to the apologia – you shouldn’t have gone out at dark, you shouldn’t have gone out at all, you shouldn’t have stayed indoors with him, you shouldn’t have been dressed like that, you shouldn’t have been laughing so loudly, you shouldn’t have gone out without a male companion, you shouldn’t have gone out with only one male companion, you shouldn’t have kept quiet, you shouldn’t have screamed, that’s what brought the other attackers to the place,…

    What they really mean is — you shouldn’t have been born. Because it is woman’s lot to be harassed and attacked and we won’t ask society to change their behaviour ONE LITTLE BIT.

  12. Faisal Khanzada says

    I am a non resident Indian male and my wife is of European descent. I have visited cities in north and west of India with my wife but we mostly visit Mumbai where my parents are originally from. I sympathize with Ms. Cross’s ordeal which sounds like a genuine account that a solo female traveller may experience in India. Mumbai is more safe and my wife at times goes solo for excursions or shopping without fear, but at other times caution is prudent and it is best advised to go places with a male companion. I have heard locals make indecent comments (Mumbai) on tourists and have also seen hooting (Delhi) as well seen group of guys walking with camera taking snaps of tourists (Goa). I am the confrontational kind and can get intimidating but its not easy for everyone to handle such situations. My wife doesnt bother or think much of what we experienced but its because I was there with her and for her. There is nothing wrong with Ms. Cross to be shattered by her experience which any normal person would feel. She is sensitive and was not ready for the culture shock. I hope she has a better understanding and experience of India on her next visit.

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